We were very privileged to have a guest in the rather vertical form of David Kremin Sensei from Philadelphia, comes to Japan each year with his family to spend time...with his Japanese family. I am very honored to have another "guest" article from Andre Bertel Sensei on a wonderful new addition my Karate life, a certain Kata called Nijushiho...
OK, first of all to the first half last Sunday's morning session:
Because Kremin Sensei comes from a "non-traditional" background, in that he is an accomplished Tang Soo Do Shidoin and champion as well as an excellent Karate teacher, he has all sorts of insights into Karate from his Shotokan Sensei, primarily but certainly not exclusively, Okasaki Sensei. So it was a great pleasure for us to have him train on Sunday in Ibusuki Sensei's class. It was also a good opportunity to sweat some of the beer, ramen and french fries consumed in disparate bars, restaurants and hostelries in Tokyo and Yokohama visited by us over several days!
The Holy Trinity
Today's practice introduced something new: dealing with people who grab you from behind
a) rear empi, driving elbow back
b) rear empi, spin uraken
c) rear empi, spin uraken, gedan kick to the knee
In Kihon, one of Ibusuki Sensei's favorite moves is sonoba maegeri, yokogeri and ushiro-geri. But how to deal with someone grabbing you from behind. First of all a reality check- having been bottled from behind and severely beaten by baseball bats with the first blow I couldn't stop being from behind, I am acutely paranoid about people getting behind me. Apart from rear headbutting and heel smash on ankle, Ibusuki's Sensei's empi, uraken and gedan kick is a way to go. The first thing is that the empi is really about smashing back, don't use your elbow to poke in the ribs, smash and twist like you are berserk. The rear shove and attack should work as a loosener, then you smash head and knee. Ibusuki Sensei believes that in any attack you should have at least three attacks lined up to discourage your opponent along the idea of if the first and second don't get him, the third will. We didn't ask him about a fourth.
In any case, Ibusuki Sensei believes, and we all know this really, that ippon waza is nice if you can do it, and we all strive for that, but you'd better have plenty in the tank. To me it all comes back to jab, cross and hook. I love it when you see Kyokushinkai derivatives that...have reverted to ....boxing. Nothing wrong with that, but...! Hum!
In any case, Ibusuki Sensei calls this "three pronged" approach The Holy Trinity of Karate. He actually started laughing as he said that. Halleluja, Gloria in Excelis Dojo.
The great and highly pleasant surprise of the lesson was suddenly we did Nijushio, in stages, then gorei then individual with corrections. It was great! We were supposed to finish of the Heian Kata, but Ibusuki Sensei decided that we would do something to welcome David Sensei.
a) In the JKA in Nakayama Sensei's time, Nijushio was considered kata to be taught and perfected at 3rd and 4th dan and not really before
b) It looks easy but actually is highly subtle, requiring tremendous merihari (contrast) in speed and power
c) Other people might have different opinions, but Ibusuki Sensei said that he felt the most important points about this Kata where the rapid directional applications and shifts, in particular combination with naname waza.
d) Ibusuki Sensei always makes a point about who he thinks is a role model for kata and said that in his opinion the person who had really mastered it was Asai Tetushiko. For Unsu or Bassai Dai, sure, YS. For Kanku Dai, IS, but for Nijushiho, without a doubt he said it was Asai Sensei.
Of course, if you love Asai-Ryu Shotokan like we do, naname hoko is a joy- particularly in Kakuyoku Nidan- oh I do love that sequence. If only I could do the whole kata properly. Actually Andre Bertel has a clip from one of his renditions of Kakuyoku Nidan. Just that sequence brings a smile to my face!
The biggest technical point out of the session that came out of it was that in the Nijushiho taught by Nakayama Sensei you do not kick jodan. Your leg should be parallel with the floor at the point of kime. In Ibusuki Sensei's opinon, people who kick jodan are not only showing off, but making a nonsense of the kata, because the point is the lightening speed and brutality with which you switch directions and attacks in this but compact and ridiculously beautiful "dance."
So we went home and consulted the Asai Sensei video on this. (When I say the video, I don't mean this version, which is wonderful, I mean from the series Asai Sensei produced later featuring Amos and Yamaguchi Sensei assisting when he was Chief Instructor of the Matsuno JKA).
Having now "practiced" Nijushiho I am in total awe of what I saw. We were both struck by just how magnificent Asai Sensei's rendition is. Yuko isn't really one for showing amazement, but even she said "Wow!" Sure, I am almost certain that there are purists who could maybe achieve more crispness on individual moves. It's like this for me; hell, I am sure there are people who could make Heien Sandan look somehow better than YS. However, when you see YS do H.3 in the JKA videos, you are left in now doubt that YS version has megaton yield. And that chimpira hair bouncing up and down. Quite a performance.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand: When I saw Asai Sensei's version, after about ten years, I realized the elements of power transition and spin and fluid motion were just...out of this world. They took my breath away. After watching Asai Sensei's Nijushiho, I felt I really understood why they called him "the storm."
So I asked Andre Bertel Sensei about this and this is the reply I got:
"Asai Sensei’s explanation of Nijushiho:
According to my late karate teacher Tetsuhiko Asai the name Nijushiho is in reference to the 34 hidden and lethal applications within this kata. Of course the name Nijushiho literally translates as 24 steps… So this initially may seem rather unusual. Sensei admonished that traditionally there were 24 clean transitions in the original Nijushiho, which is still known as Niseishi on Okinawa (and by various other ryuha such as Shito-ryu and Wado-ryu, here is a Wado-ryu version), hence the name.
And yes it is extremely advanced, and just like all of the other jiyu-gata, is usually far beyond the ability of those performing them, especially when considering the respective oyo/bunkai-jutsu. As Asai Sensei said “this is no problem if kata is merely for sports karate, as performance is all that matters, and therefore, kata are merely considered more advance, by their outward form. However, this runs in stark contrast to the JKA, which emphasizes form for optimal function.” Returning specifically to Nijushiho, Asai Sensei stated at the 1994 Gasshuku (in Gifu, Japan) “If Nijushiho is performed heavily, why not do Jitte or Sochin?” What he was emphasising in this case was `the loss of character amongst the kata’.
Asai Sensei AKA Nijushiho:
Asai Sensei truly loved Nijushiho, and as you will well know, it was the Shotokan-ryu kata he was most famous for. His heart, mind and spirit were immersed in Nijushiho, and when he performed it, "HE WAS NIJUSHIHO. "According to Mrs. Keiko Asai, Nakayama Sensei said just prior to his death “Mr. Asai is the only one who can execute Nijushiho properly”. The Nijushiho in Nakayama Sensei’s `Best Karate Volume 10’ is reflective of this.
My socho-geiko experiences of Nijushiho with Asai Sensei: During socho-geiko (morning practice), and when I assisted him in seminars, he never once failed to blow my mind with his performance of this kata.., and I can’t overemphasize the danger when he applied its actual oyo-jutsu. Often he would request free attacks and then `reactively’ apply the kata on me. If I did not attack hard enough or in a predictable manner he would get impatient and really `educate’ me. So I always tried to attack him with all of my energy. Even so, because of Asai Sensei’s extreme level, he sometimes thought I was holding back, and I’d cop it anyway! This was the case even less than a year before he passed away at 70 years old!
Spellbound by a legend: Anyway, performance-wise, seeing videos of him performing Nijushiho is mind blowing enough (if you comprehend authentic traditional Japanese karate), but everyone who saw Sensei perform Nijushiho right there front of them in person, just stood there gaping in awe… Totally stunned... In Tokyo I’ve seen today’s most senior instructors spellbound by Asai Sensei’s Nijushiho such as Mikio Yahara Sensei, Masao Kagawa Sensei, Akihito Isaka Sensei, Toru Yamaguchi Sensei and others.
Technically speaking Asai Sensei emphasised the importance of `action-integration’ and continuous flow of varying forms of power. Initially this was from Nijushiho and then later permeated throughout his karate-do. This fluidity and smoothness, as opposed to stiff, heavy and robotic movements were heavily influenced by his exposure to White Crane Chinese Boxing. Sensei primarily employed this art to return his technique to pre-competition `martial art karate’ as opposed to what he regularly referred to as "constipated motion". Another point worth mentioning here was Masatoshi Nakayama Sensei’s interest and exposure to Chinese martial arts and this cordially resulted in his full support of Asai Sensei’s way, and led to his position as JKA (Japan Karate Association) Technical Director..."
(Editors note: constipated motion ! Great! Having discovered Asai Sensei's Nijushiho, I realized that I lacked the vernacular to do credit to what I saw in the depth of the performance. I am starting to realize that Asai Tetsuhiko was loose at such a deep level that he was able to generate enormous power and vitality within his body. I perceive tremendous energy flow within his movements, which has been another tremendous discovery for me. The only other advanced Sensei I know devoted to such internal dynamics is Isaka Sensei through his slow motion training! Frankly, having seen Asai Sensei's Nijushiho, others look "stiff" both inside and outside...make sense? mmm....ok, back to Bertel Sensei...)
"...One special point that Sensei emphasized to me in Nijushiho was the lightness of his chudan yoko kekomi. I quickly discovered that his transmission of power was bone breaking… I won’t say any more… Let me just seriously emphasise `the lighter and more precise, the deeper the impact’. Another point with this technique, is that the kick can be done in three ways chudan yoko kekomi, gedan yoko kekomi (kansetsu geri) or as fumikomi. The fumikomi version alone is the original version, but the practice of the horizontal keriwaza will lead to a superior `up and driving down’ fumikomi from the hips/application of bodyweight. Ironically the yoko kekomi was added by Asai Sensei and his senpai, Okazaki Sensei. Another point was the haishu-uke or back hand block, which no one seems to do properly. A good hint I can offer to anyone is to closely study videos of Asai Sensei. After basic coordination of hands and feet note the forearm action, and the `special posture'. This is correct, not the kihon shisei. It is based on triangular power, which is a very deep subject, and can make all of the difference between a slap and a knockout!
I could go on and on about my teacher's Nijushiho all day as his execution was seamless and had such extreme technical depth. Add in the memories I have of oyo-kumite, many of which people have seen on the internet both photographically and in video, and you will begin to get a taste of Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei’s karate, which was literally spring-boarded by Nijushiho in the late 1950’s. There is much more to this story, and whilst I’ll always practice Nijushiho, when I do so I feel a great wave of total inferiority. From Sensei’s personal words to me on this kata, my direct study under him, having to attack him for application training, and just seeing him perform this kata.. I will never be able to call it my own based on this literally untouchable technical level, but will always be inspired by it."
--- So there you have it folks. For me, as a shodan, this Kata was revelatory of a whole new vista of Karate that I can now dimly perceive, but will I ever be able to appreciate this Kata. YS commonly says that to master the "simplest" technique, a Karateka must initially practice it 10,000 times. I figure at age 43, I might get round to completing my basic training for a nidan in the next ten years, which leaves me in my 50s to spend a decade trying to get to grips with Karate like this.
I would like to give my profound thanks to Andre for taking his very valuable time to provide those insights into not only Nijushiho but Asai Sensei's philosophy on this intriguing and impossibly beautiful Kata.